Every single person is unique, each a separate identity. Naturally, who we are and how we live our lives is shaped by various forces as we develop and progress through our lives. One of the most fundamental of these shaping forces is clearly our family; be it biological or social, family plays a major role in setting the foundations for one’s identity. Bruce Chatwin clearly displays his belief of this notion in his novel On the Black Hill, a family saga which explores such connection between family and identity.
The story of On the Black Hill is the story of its principal characters and their families as they move through several generations, allowing the reader to observe the effect of family dynamics on the characters’ developments. The principal family is On the Black Hill is palpably the Joneses, and Chatwin describes them in great detail. The twins, Lewis and Benjamin Jones, are the main characters of the story and are obvious examples of characters shaped by family dynamics. Lewis “was the stronger twin, and the firstborn”.
His role had already been determined when he emerged into the world as the first son; he is the strong masculine twin, the protector of Benjamin. Even from young he has displayed his ability to take away the pain of his brother upon himself. Meanwhile, Benjamin is the second-born and naturally he is extremely dependant on Lewis preferring to “tread in his footsteps; to breathe the air that he had breathed”. Even from young Benjamin showed effeminate qualities, dressing up in his mother Mary’s clothes and insisting on baking cakes for Lewis.
Hence he retains this feminine role even eighty years later, doing “all the cooking, the darning and the ironing”. The identities of Lewis and Benjamin are also clearly influenced by their parents Amos and Mary, directly as well as indirectly. Even before the birth of the twins, Amos and Mary, who assumed they were to have a single child, had already planned out the future for their ‘son’. Amos “pictured a brawny little fellow who would muck out the cowsheds” and Mary hopes for a boy that will “grow up to be a statesman of a lawyer or a surgeon who would save people’s lives”.
Clearly the couple’s hopes are shaped by their own contrasting family backgrounds, Amos’ uneducated low-class Welsh family and Mary’s educated middle-class English family. The twins turn out to be farmers as their father expected, put to work in the farm since young, and each son inherits traits from each parent. Benjamin is the intellectual one, inheriting Mary’s intelligence and shaped by her tutoring. In addition to that, he inherits her stinginess and shares her obsession with buying new land.
On the other hand, Lewis is more like his father; he inherits Amos’ “wonderful way with sheepdogs” and even his resentment for Benjamin’s intellect is a reflection of Amos’ attitude towards Mary. This idea of children being shaped by heredity and family environment is a recurring idea in texts; for example, in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, heredity is a major theme which runs throughout the play, represented through various characters such as Dr. Rank and Nora Helmer. Even after their deaths, Amos and Mary continue to have a lasting impact on the lives of the twins.
This is already established by the very first sentence of the novel, “For forty-two years, Lewis and Benjamin Jones slept side by side, in their parents’ bed, at their farm which was known as ‘The Vision’. ” Even at over eighty years of age, they stay at their parents’ farm and continue the routine life of a farmer, a similar life to Amos’. They also “lived for the memory of their mother”, and Benjamin takes over her role, “keeping her flagstones scrubbed” and even having his “baking day” every week on the same day she had hers.